Does relegation need to be kicked into touch?

As happy as I was seeing Gloucester take the full 5 points from their trip to Ashton Gate recently, there was a part of me that was disappointed to see Bristol’s relegation back to the Championship all but guaranteed. I was quite surprised and disappointed when I saw a story quoting their chairman as saying they would “walk promotion” next season if they are relegated. However after thinking about it for a moment, I realised that rather than arrogance this is probably just stating a fact. Last season’s relegated team, London Irish, were unbeaten in the league until a recent loss at Jersey. With Pat Lam as coach and a number of high-profile new signings (including internationals Ian Madigan and Alapati Leiua) and current players committing (Siale Piutau & captain Jack Lam) all on the books for next season it is very likely that Bristol will finish top of the league, thereby benefitting from the playoffs being scrapped as of next season.

This got me thinking if we should have promotion and relegation between the 2 leagues, or if the calls to ring-fence the Premiership are justified. Up to now I have firmly believed that it is right to have promotion and relegation, but I have tried to look at this objectively in order to generate a fair opinion. In doing so, I have realised how little I actually knew of the Championship, so this has been a bit of a learning curve for me too as I have looked into this.

 

Something worth fighting for

My main argument in favour of relegation has always been that it gives the teams at the bottom an incentive to keep fighting until the end of the season, even once it is clear that they will be unable to make the playoffs of qualify for the Champions Cup. Fans pay good money to watch their teams play, if they turned up and saw the team experimenting with new combinations or blooding too many academy players ahead of the next season, then some fans would likely feel short-changed if the team did not get the desired result. By having the fear of being relegated from the league if they are not getting the results, it means that the teams must continue fighting right to the very end to ensure their safety. It makes the league more exiting for fans too when they can be looking at teams throughout the league table still fighting for something important, whether it is a place in the league playoffs, a chance to play against the top teams in Europe or even just survival in the league.

Conversely, the need to fight until the end could have a negative effect. The need to win every game in order for teams to stay up means that it is harder for them to bring up youth players. With Bristol having Gavin Henson and Tusi Pisi on their books this season, I doubt they had any plans for Billy Searle to have played such a big part in their league campaign this year. Likewise Worcester with Jamie Shillcock. A look at the England U20s EPS for this year’s 6 Nations does not throw up many names instantly recognisable from the Premiership. Many of these players, though undoubtedly talented, are playing in the Championship, or feature for their Premiership clubs mainly in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and A-League games, unless there are injuries or international call-ups at their position. Though the quality players are constantly coming through at youth level, they are often then struggling to break into the senior match day squads on a regular basis. There will be the odd freak of nature like Maro Itoje or Zach Mercer who becomes a first team regular at a young age, but for many players there is a period between graduating from their academy and getting regular first team rugby. With the money starting to come into the league, this is only likely to get worse as top international players are signed from other countries with huge wages that force coaches to pick them over the young prospects.

This need to play the top players as often as possible could also be detrimental to their long-term wellbeing. Between the domestic season (regular appearances in the Premiership and European Cup), the 6 Nations and International windows in the summer and autumn, there is not much time for an England International to have a break – and this isn’t even taking to account years where we have a Lions tour or a World Cup! There have been plenty of grumbles from fans at the amount of games internationals in the Pro12 miss, but the lighter schedule for these players must allow them to remain at peak fitness for more matches rather than carrying little knocks over a couple of weeks. The last thing you want is for a match between 2 of the top nations is for half the team to be below par as they are carrying minor injuries or are completely burnt out from a long season. Removing relegation means that teams can manage all their players better, allowing internationals the rest they need while letting the young players gain valuable experience in the first team, a plus for everyone involved.

Money talks

The Greene King IPA Championship is a professional league, but that does not mean that it is necessarily sustainable. London Welsh were liquidated back in December and just a quick search on Google found me a number of stories of other Championship teams struggling financially: Jersey sold their assets in November to ensure they made it through to the end of the season, Richmond’s players are part-time and Bedford have recently been given full relief of business rates by the local council on grounds of financial hardship. Jersey may have just defeated London Irish in back-to-back games, but over the course of a season, it is going to be difficult for teams struggling financially to compete against the money that a team relegated from the Premiership will have, not to mention the quality of players they will bring if they can convince a number of their players to stay with them despite the drop as Bristol have.

In the last 11 seasons, the team relegated from the Premiership have won promotion in the next season 8 times, which also looks set to happen this year barring a playoff collapse from London Irish. The only teams to have not made it back into the Premiership since their last relegation in this time frame are Leeds in 2011 and London Welsh in 2016. With the increase in the Premiership salary cap, the quality of players coming down to the Championship with a relegated team is improving, so it is becoming even easier for a team to make an immediate return following relegation. When it gets to the point that the promotion from the Championship is a given and the only question is who will be relegated, is there any point having promotion?

If another team does manage to beat the odds and win the Championship, is there even any guarantee that they will be able to gain promotion? Rotherham (2002) are so far the only team to have been denied promotion to the Premiership due to their grounds not meeting the league’s minimum standard, however there have been years where Cornish Pirates have been competing in the playoff final knowing that they will not be promoted even if they win convincingly. When London Welsh won the league in 2012, they were only confirmed of their Premiership status in late June following an appeal after their plans to play at the Kassam Stadium were initially deemed unsuitable by the RFU. This delay severely hampered their recruiting, likely contributing towards their immediate return to the Championship. It doesn’t seem fair that a team can win the league but not be promoted if other teams in the league do have that extra incentive. It only seems fair that the RFU either get rid of the minimum requirements (which I wouldn’t be against at all) or ring-fence the league.

Picking the teams

So let’s assume that the RFU does decide to ring-fence the league, it would be very harsh if a team got relegated in the final season and were then stuck in a league where they are clearly of a higher quality. For this reason I think that the Premiership would need expanding. Unless the RFU wanted to introduce bye weeks into the season, they would need to keep the number of teams even, so it would make sense to expand the league from 12 to 14 teams in this circumstance. The important question then becomes which teams are selected. I feel that Bristol’s consistency at reaching the playoffs in the Championship since their last relegation means that they still deserve a spot in an extended Premiership alongside London Irish and the other 11 current Premiership clubs. But who would deserve the last spot?

Yorkshire Carnegie (formerly Leeds) would be the obvious choice to make the step up as the 14th Premiership team. Since their last relegation in 2011, they have never finished lower than 6th and will have finished in the top 4 on 4 of these occasions, including this season where they currently lie second with enough points to guarantee a top 4 finish. They also have a stadium capable of holding just over 21,000 supporters, which is considerably more than most of the other Championship teams. There would also then be the added benefit of having another top flight team based further North, especially as most of the current Premiership teams are found in either London, the South West or the Midlands.

Doncaster Knights were runners-up in last year’s playoff final after finishing second to Bristol, but their stadium’s capacity (5,000) is half the size of the smallest currently in the Premiership. They have also not been as consistent as Carnegie over the same period of time, having been relegated in 2013 and winning an immediate return the following year, but finished 2nd last year and are currently 4th.

Cornish Pirates are hoping to get a new stadium that would allow them to meet the Premiership’s minimum standard, so it would be very harsh to not consider them for the last Premiership place. However, though their finishing positions since 2012 have been more consistent than Doncaster they have not made the top 4 since 2012’s playoff final loss to Bristol and currently find themselves 6th in the league, 4 points behind Doncaster.

 

When I first considered writing this, I really felt that promotion and relegation between the Premiership and Championship was right, but looking into this has really made me rethink my stance on the matter.

If the Championship can be made more financially stable so that teams are able to compete against those being relegated from the Premiership, then I feel there is a place for relegation, so long as whoever the winner is can be promoted regardless of the size of their home ground. However, until the RFU can get the Championship in this position, I feel that it would be unfair on everyone involved for a team to be relegated to a league where their team can easily consider winning the competition with a couple of months to spare, while other teams in the same league struggle to stay afloat financially.

My personal opinion is that the Premiership should be expanded to 14 teams and then ring-fenced, with teams moving up from lower leagues to replace those moved up. If I was the one making the decision, I would pick London Irish and Yorkshire Carnegie to join the 12 current Premiership Clubs. With this ring-fencing, the RFU can make the decision between putting more finances into the Championship or to step it back to a more sustainable semi-pro/amateur competition. This does not have to be the end of the matter, I would be more than happy for the Premiership to reintroduce relegation if the Championship can get to a level where it is can compete with teams dropping down from the top league. As the league season would require more matches, the Anglo-Welsh could possibly be removed, with Premiership teams playing their youth or ‘A’ teams in a revamped British & Irish Cup, allowing them to play against other Premiership ‘A’ teams and Championship-level clubs.

 

What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you agree with promotion and relegation? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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